Author: Renbin Su
Program of Study: Masters of Law (LLM) University of Chicago Law School

On a rainy and grey Sunday, my friend Renbin and I are finally on the 6th bus after several failed attempts to navigate ourselves via our mobile maps. 6th bus is Jackson Express, which comes all the way from Downtown and goes down to the South. We took the bus from Hyde Park and are heading south along Jackson Park. As we leave Hyde Park behind, ‘the South’ beyond Hyde Park gets more visible. The buildings become shorter, they get sparser, and the weariness of years is not hidden from their facades. Renbin and I are the only people on the bus as we try to capture the silent and inanimate streets from our window. They feel lonely and somehow fit the mood of the day.

We get off the bus at South Shore Drive & 79th Street. It is already 4 pm, combined with the rain and the wind, and we are the only people outside. Lake Michigan is grey and green in front of us. Renbin notes that watercolor is different here than Downtown, and I wonder if lakes can take different colors in different spots. On our back, we see houses, warehouses, and three-floor buildings. We want to catch the remaining daylight, and we move forward to reach our destination, which takes a half-hour walk. Before walking, we stop by a grocery store called South Shore Food Mart, which stands right on the corner, at the intersection of South Shore Drive and 79th street. The grocery store reminds me of the grocery stores in the provincial towns in my country. We briefly interrupt the friendly conversation of the customers and the cashier with the things we buy, and then we follow the South Shore Drive, which will take us to our destination.

Our destination is Steelworkers Park. Even before seeing it, this place had an irresistible appeal for two reasons: its location on the southern-eastern border of Chicago and its name. The South Shore Drive takes us to the Steelworkers Park through wilderness and green. There are no buildings, and an unattended lawn is expanding from the highway towards the lakefront on the east side. On the west side, long trees are like natural fences covering the neighborhood beyond themselves; later, I will learn that the neighborhood’s name is The Bush. On our way, we see the massive steel body of the Ewing Avenue Bridge on the Calumet River, one of the earliest bascule bridges in the US, dating back to 1914.[i] On our left, two blocks of massive concrete wall expand vertically towards the lake; the tarnishing colors of this monolithic grandness are a reminder and relic of a glorious, industrial past. Two men are fishing in the canal in front of the walls.

Figure 1. One block of the Ore Wall (Photo taken by the author).

We finally reach the park entrance, and a metal statue of a family of five and a dog welcome us. It is easy to tell the family’s non-whiteness despite its monochrome bronzeness. We read a sentence inscribed on the plaque below the statue: To all the union men and women and their families who shared the steel dreams. The statue entitled “The Tribute to The Past” is a work by Roman Villareal, who was born in Mexico and moved to the South Side of Chicago with his family when he was a child. Raised in The Bush during the 60s, Villareal joined the Vietnam war, and when he returned from Vietnam, he began to work in the steel mills of South Chicago during the 70s and 80s. In 1992, U.S. Steel Corp., one of the leading steel manufacturers in the US, closed its biggest plant located on the Southeastern shore of Chicago, where The Park is today, and suddenly thousands of workers, who were predominantly from the surrounding neighborhoods, lost their jobs, and Villareal was one of them. After losing his day job, Villareal pursued a full-time art career, and his sculptures, which he had started first with the found materials from the steel mills that he was working with, are now located in different spots of the “East Side” depicting ‘the tragedy and the nostalgia of the barrio where he grew up and still lives.

Figure 2. ‘Tribute to the Past’ Statue by Roman Villareal (Photo taken by the author).

 

Steelworkers’ Park is located between two historically industrial community areas, South Chicago and East Side. These two neighborhoods were the greatest labor resource required for the steel mills, which employed approximately forty thousand steelworkers in their heyday in the 1970s. As the steel industry began to decline just as many other heavy industries in the Rust Belt area,[iv] relics of abandonment remained in the area in the form of an inflated unemployment rate, and a few steel parts of the heavy machinery were exhibited in the park. The remnants lay down on the grass, stripped off their functions, and turned into memorabilia. We walk along Lake Michigan on a pathway among the grass, with the sounds of birds chirping and passing dismantled objects. It’s Labor Day, and my friend Renbin and I are the only people in the park. We get silent as we walk; I get caught by the loneliness of this ‘spectral shoreline’, as the writer Chloe Taft (2016) describes it, trying hard to imagine another life once flourished here 30 years before, the sounds that filled this place one a site of industrial production which had been the city’s and the country’s ‘growth machine’ (Lewis, 2020).

Before the park, the site was occupied by Chicago’s largest steel plant, South Works, which belonged to the United States Steel Corporation. As the urban historian Robert Lewis documents in his study, manufacturing and production between Civil War and World War II significantly shaped Chicago’s character as ‘the second largest industrial metropolis by 1900,’ transforming from “the condition of mere frontier life but a handful of men collected in a knot at the mouth of the Chicago River, surrounded by an almost untouched wilderness and having no industries but barter” to “become one of the most populous, wealthy, and industries centers of the area in the whole United States” (Lewis, 2008, p.21) In the 1920s, the scope of industrial production particularly concentrated along steel manufacturing rendered South Chicago as the whole country’s steel production center (Lewis, 24).    

Figure 3. Map of Southeast Chicago in 70s. Created by Leland Belew.

 

Figure 4. Workers in the South Works plant. Image taken from: https://www.sechicagohistory.org/

The zeal for production, growth, and development that marked US metropolitans at the end of the 19th century attracted many European immigrants who had hopes for a better future in place other than in their war-torn countries. And South Chicago was one of the attraction centers to the immigrants for the job opportunities it provided. Lewis documents that by the 1920s, almost 80 percent of the Chicagoans were either foreign-born or had foreign parents (p.30). First-wave Immigrants coming to work in South Chicago’s steel mills were of Scandinavia, British Isles, and German descent, followed by Eastern European immigrants who would become the majority population in the area, and who would be followed by Mexicans during World WW1 and African Americans during WWII. The ethnic diversity of the neighborhood is noted by urban sociologist Kornblum’s study in 1974, as Kornblum observes, “the entire South Chicago area is honeycombed by neighborhoods which differ according to ethnicity, comprised of the separate community of Serbians, Croatians, Poles, Italians, Scandinavians, Germans, Mexicans, and blacks” (Kornblum, p.15). According to Kornblum, this spatial honeycomb had been divided along ethnic and racial differences, and each ethnic neighborhood represented a fully-fledged sociality that grew out of fraternity clubs, taverns, and churches exclusive to each ethnic group. Yet, despite this ethnic division of space, the steel mill was the essential factor that connected all these divided neighborhoods. As Kornblum describes in his chapter entitled ‘’Steel as a Way of Life,” steel was the essential factor that connected the workers from different ethnic backgrounds and created a fellowship of sharing “universalistic experiences of life on rolling mills, blast furnaces, coke ovens, ore docks, and the switchyards of the steel industry” (p.19), also their families whose livelihood depended on the operation of the steel mill.

During the time of Kornblum’s study, 10.000-12,000 employees were working in the US Steel Co.’s South Works plant. While the number is humble compared to 345,000 employees who worked in the plant during the 1940s[v], the steel workers hold a strong political position and representation thanks to the unionization of blue-collar workers. As the accelerated growth and development thanks to the industrialization marked in the first half of the 20th century corresponded to a strong and organized labor movement, steel workers were historically the pioneers in advocating workers’ rights against the industrial capital at many costs. “The Memorial Day Massacre” in 1937 caused the death of 10 striking steelworkers and hundreds of injuries, inscribed the steelworkers’ collective memory.

The union of steelworkers, tethered through a collective political will, memory, and experience, according to Kornblum, enabled the workers to “transcend the physical and cultural isolation of their [segregated] neighborhoods” (p.20). For steelworkers, regardless of their ethnicity, the steel mill was a community of hope and dream of living in just and humane conditions and a future where one’s hard labor would compensate for themselves and their families.

However, the deindustrialization and neo-liberalization of the US economy abandoned steel manufacturing as bulky and profitless and neglected the unionized steelworkers as wayward and irrelevant obstacles to restructuring the economy towards a precarious dynamism. The shoreline of Southeastern Chicago was rapidly emptied by the gigantic steel mills and made the remaining 4000 workers jobless overnight, without any prospect of future employment. In her book Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago, anthropologist Christine J. Walley portrays the dark history of deindustrialization in Southeastern Chicago interwoven with her painstakingly intimate personal and family history. Born and raised in Southeastern Chicago, Walley experienced the outcomes of deindustrialization as Walley’s father was a steelworker in the Steel Co. until the plant closed in 1992. Walley’s book lays out how the shift in the political economy throughout the 1980s and 1990s to downsize the manufacturing industry in the home country to weigh in the service and finance sector affected the manufacturing workers and their families and their struggle for existence in post-industrial work. Unemployment for Walley’s father, like other at least nine hundred men and their families, has become a chronic problem. According to Walley, adding more to that was suddenly becoming irrelevant in the grand plan of economic restructuring. Within the rapid shift of globalism and neoliberalism, the labor of a steelworker, who reportedly has been one of the pillars of American development throughout the 1900s, suddenly lost its meaning.

Moreover, according to Walley, the closing down of the steel mill disintegrated the intergenerational and interracial social fabric of the neighborhoods in Southeast Chicago. She was one of those who experienced the disintegration firsthand. Her father; after losing his job in the steel mill, had to switch between unstable and underpaid jobs. Walley contends that the mill haunted his father throughout his life and his fellow steelworkers; depression, alcoholism, stress-related disorders, and suicide became endemic among those whose labor lost its negotiating power vis-a-vis new economic order and pursuit of the cheapest labor. While the new economic model has eliminated the national borders, it also built invisible fences around Southeast Chicago.

As we walk through the park, we see an information board illustrating a renewal project envisioned for Steelworkers Park. Entitled ‘Expanding The South Chicago Neighborhood,’ the board makes a graphic prophecy for the park’s future. It depicts a residential complex comprising highrise buildings encircling Steelworkers Park, and the canal has been transformed into a marina for private yachts. “From its brownfield industrial past, Lakeside is being transformed into an area rich in community, innovation, and vitality,” the sign says. The naivete of Roman Villareal’s sentence suddenly gains an unbearable weight; how to scale steel dreams against millions of land speculation and gentrification.

Figure 5. The future of the Steelworkers Park

Unsurprisingly, any promises made by urban renewal projects come with the erasure of the past, a past rendered unworthy of remembering. In this case, the life that once flourished around the steel mills of South Chicago and the collective struggle, labor, and dreams of steel are to be effaced. The illustration does not display the wall. The documentarist Steve Walsh says that it was the workers of the South Works plant who dismantled the plant when it was shut[vi]. As I climb on the wall through the climbing holders installed on its concrete surface, I wonder who will destroy the wall.

[i]  https://historicbridges.org/bridges/browser/?bridgebrowser=illinois/ewing/
[ii]  http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/300079.html
[iii]  https://villarrealartstudio.com/
[iv] For further information about Rust Belt area, see  https://www.thoughtco.com/rust-belt-industrial-heartland-of-the-united-states-1435759
[v]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Steel#cite_note-post-5
[vi]  https://chicago.suntimes.com/2022/9/4/23326912/documentary-steel-mills-industry-southeast-side-south-chicago-hegewisch-deering-steven-walsh

References
Encyclopedia of Chicago. (n.d.). Retrieved September 6, 2022, from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/
Ewing Avenue Bridge. Ewing Avenue Bridge (92nd Street Bridge) – HistoricBridges.org. (n.d.). Retrieved September 6, 2022, from https://historicbridges.org/bridges/browser/?bridgebrowser=illinois%2Fewing%2F
Kornblum, W. (1974). Blue Collar Community. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Lewis, R. (2008). Chicago Made: Factory Networks in the Industrial Metropolis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Mahaney, E. (2020, January 21). The rust belt is the industrial heartland of the United States. ThoughtCo. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from https://www.thoughtco.com/rust-belt-industrial-heartland-of-the-united-states-1435759
Villarreal Art Studio. (n.d.). Villarreal art studio. Villarreal Art Studio. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from https://villarrealartstudio.com/
Walley, C. (2013). Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press